IoE founder and National Geographic Explorer Gautam Shah spoke at the National Geographic Explorers Festival in London earlier this year about the importance of connecting audiences with conservation on their own terms. Watch a recording of his talk or read the transcript below.

This was me. When I worked as an IT consultant, and spent all my personal time and money traveling the world to be in nature and with wildlife. But there came a moment where it all felt very selfish. I realised that the vast majority of people will never see the things I was seeing. 

Building an army of urban conservationists

Today almost 4 billion of us live in cities. We are urban, tech driven beings. For most of us, the natural world will continue to drift further and further away from our daily lives and priorities. So I decided to quit my perfectly good job to find out how we could build an army of urban conservationists, whether they be stock brokers in New York, families in Jakarta, teachers in Berlin, or college kids in Lagos. 

It is the engagement of these audiences that will drive market conditions, available financing, and government policy that is so critical to enabling conservation work worldwide.

People already love wildlife - but we are not engaging them on their terms

The good news is that a high percentage of these people already love wildlife. It’s not that people don’t care or don’t know the facts, it’s that they aren’t being engaged on terms that are relevant to their daily lives. Modern channels, leveraged for the benefit of wildlife, have the potential to change that. 

Why are there not hundreds of games for conservation?

Consider, as an example, that 2.1 billion people play mobile games, and that is growing. It is astounding to me that there aren’t thousands of games out there to benefit wildlife. Our outreach efforts have to consider these consumers and the channels they use, and engage them on their terms, not ours.

We build games for conservation

At Internet of Elephants, we combine data driven storytelling, the use of modern channels, a customer centric approach to our design, and an ecosystem of conservation and distribution partners to create games, data visualizations, and other applications to connect people to wildlife.

We started by testing whether you could create a sense of empathy just from data alone. Next, we looked at how we could make the same thing interactive and exploratory.

From data visualisation to data documentaries

For Satellite Stories, we modeled the movements of over 3,000 animals over a 7 day period of time in Ol Pejeta Conservancy to give a bird’s eye view of the diversity and interaction of life within the park. The user can explore an entire wildlife rich region and understand more about the habitat, the wildlife that lives there, and dive into some of the individual storylines about animals and conservation efforts.

This was just the first prototype and there is room for improvement, but our intention is to create a series - featuring other wildlife rich regions or phenomenon such as the impact of the arctic melt on polar bears populations or the spectacle of the great sardine run.

Data visualizations probably still reach similar audiences to what conservation organizations already reach, and we wanted to bring broader audiences into the story.

Augmented reality brings wildlife and conservation closer

Last year we looked at the power and appeal of individual animals and augmented reality to catch people’s attention. In partnership with 6 conservation organizations, we recreated 6 real animals and brought their stories to global audiences through a playful application called Safari Central.

We received thousands of photos from Russia to India to Brazil as players competed to be the Augmented Reality Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

Our next product: a PokÉmon Go style game for wildlife

We are currently trying to enrich on all these concepts through gamification. Our next product, Wildeverse, is a mobile location based AR game that creates missions for players to play a scientist studying apes in Borneo and the Congo, by exploring their own cities to track these animals and support the organizations that work with them.

Think Pokémon Go for orangutans and chimpanzees. But where the animals characters are real, the habitats are real, and the researchers that are featured in the game are real. Wildeverse will release in July of this year in the UK only, in partnership with the Chester Zoo with a more global release following soon after. While it starts with just apes, we’re looking to expand it to other animals and habitats.

Run Wild

And finally, we’re collaborating with Runtastic (part of Adidas), to create a fitness app that lets you “compete” with real animals in the wild based on the GPS data of the actual distances they are moving or heights they are climbing.

So imagine trying to get as many steps tomorrow as Ataia the jaguar from Brazil or trying to bike more than Neatoo the wildebeest runs during her annual migration.

Let’s get serious about play

I realize that much of this may seem whimsical and I will admit to sometimes being intimidated in the presence of scientists and conservationists who are literally on the ground fighting tooth and nail for habitat and species preservation.

But I also believe that without effectively attracting and activating the next generation of potential difference makers, the next 100 years of wildlife conservation will continue to be an uphill battle, supported only by the will of those very few.

So whether it’s games or data visualizations or other techniques, think about how technology can play a crucial role in bringing the wildlife story to audiences, and help us get out of our comfort zone of who we are engaging and how we’re engaging them.